After 15 Years of Moving People, Here's What Bogotá's BRT Should Do Next

Bogota’s TransMilenio is considered a widely successful BRT system; however, there are still things it can change to improve the user experience. Photo by Claudio Olivares Medina/Flickr

The official inauguration of the TransMilenio bus rapid transit (BRT) system took place 15 years ago today, on December 4th of 2000; the event was a milestone for public transportation in Bogotá, Colombia, and changed the way the world thought about BRT. With TransMilenio, Colombia’s capitol transformed as a city, moving away from public transportation services characterized by informality and weak regulation, to a new model of entrepreneurship and control with high performance.

Since its implementation, TransMiIenio has grown from its initial 14 kilometers to 112 km, and from 30,000 passengers on its inaugural day, to more than two million passengers every day. Currently, it is being integrated with the rest of the city buses in the Integrated Public Transportation System (SITP).

Despite its widespread success, TransMilenio still faces big challenges. Specifically, the BRT system is working to improve quality of service; boost citywide integration of public transportation services; reduce emissions and air pollution; reduce fatal traffic crashes, and advance funding. Below are actions the BRT system can take to achieve these goals:

Higher Quality and Efficiency

The main challenges to service quality are crowding during peak hours, poor reliability on arrival times, and a lack of maintenance of existing infrastructure. For example, during peak hours, TransMilenio’s occupancy hits 6-7 passengers per square meter, which is uncomfortably full; the goal should be 4-5 passengers per square meter. This reduction in crowding calls for additional buses and improved infrastructure, such as larger stations. High occupancy levels during peak hours dramatically impacts the satisfaction of users, and may cause residents to use personal vehicles instead.

Users are also frustrated by the irregularity of buses arriving at stations. In order to gain users confidence, TransMilenio should invest in information technology improves dispatch frequency and updates users on stop times. Successful pilot trials have been performed in collaboration with Universidad Católica de Chile and Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá and could be utilized for the city.

Improving maintenance requires a budget ran on a timely basis—which requires improved financing, addressed below.

An Integrated and Multi-modal System

While TransMilenio is somewhat integrated with city buses, there is still plenty of work to be done to improve cohesion. To become fully integrated, the first step is to unify fare methods by the end of 2015, allowing customers to pay for the BRT and feeder buses in a uniform way. The next step is to optimize the SITP zone services based on an analysis of use over the last two years.

TransMilenio should especially focus on integrating with the upcoming metro, which has received extensive funding and support from the local and national government. Indeed, after implementation, the metro is expected to be the fifth most utilized metro per mile in the world, and will require integration to be effective.

Less Air Pollution and GHG Emissions

Although Bogotá has majorly improved air quality and now meets national standards, the city’s air pollution still exceeds the World Health Organization’s recommendations. To improve, SITP has plans to renovate and expand TransMilenio’s fleet with cleaner technologies, drawing on hybrid and electric battery technologies.

Moreover, Bogotá should not wait for manufacturers to advance on these fronts; the city can push for changes in vehicle standards and electric cars for public and consumer use. The challenge is balancing cost with public needs and potential risks. Moving forward, Bogotá should explore supporting policies such as: tax exemptions, concession financing and new regulatory requirements.

Traffic Safety

TransMilenio is the safest transport alternative in the city, but the BRT still experiences crashes that cause deaths and injuries which could be avoided. The room for the greatest improvement involves crashes with pedestrians. Deaths and injuries most frequently occur when users attempt to evade fares or take shortcuts at stations; for example, some individuals fail to use station exits and entrances and jump directly from or onto the street.

Transport officials should work to better control infrastructure, installing mechanisms such as barriers between traffic lanes and improving education on the risks of inappropriate behavior. Bogotá can achieve a vision of zero crashes for TransMilenio through the design of “forgiving infrastructure,” where human errors do not result in death or serious injuries.

A Financially Sustainable System

The above improvements require proper financing to be implemented, straining already limited funding. Encouragingly, however, the national government has moved away from the mistaken principle of “auto-sustainability,” in which capital and operating costs are completely covered from user fares.

This national regulation is consistent with equitable economic theory, as subsidized fares:

  • improve share of riders, which saves time for all users (Mohring Effect)
  • keep transit users that would otherwise use less efficient travel modes (motorcycles and automobiles)
  • allow redistribution of resources in society, since most users are middle- and low-income individuals

Valuing the Human Experience

These debates on integration, technology, traffic safety and funding, lose focus of the ultimate priority of the service: the people. The transport system is only a means for individuals to access jobs, education, recreation, socialization, and to take advantage of opportunities offered by urban life. It’s key for transport officials to remember this as they plan for future changes.

Bogotá has steadily pioneered sustainable public transport over the last few decades. The challenge is maintaining this momentum, keeping participation high and improving the quality of transport for a healthier, more equitable city.

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